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I’ve been fortunate to meet so many gifted in-house creative leaders over the years. My goal is to help them solve problems—and thankfully, creatives aren’t at all shy about discussing their problems. So what are the most common day-to-day business challenges for their teams? Too much work. Too many rush jobs. Missed deadlines. Too many reviews and revisions. Too much ambiguity. Too many unhappy clients. Many of these issues stem from the current business trend toward increased workloads and limited resources. In order to do more with less, in-house creative teams begin working longer hours. And soon enough, their workload grows again, so they work even longer hours. This cycle hurts both the business and the people, and if left unchecked it becomes increasingly difficult to correct.
Truly great in-house teams, however, have learned to avoid this resource trap. Rather than trying (and failing) to solve problems with people, they actually solve problems with process improvement. Instead of using a traditional corporate approach to implementing such improvements, they draw upon methods that work best in creative environments. Whether it’s about leadership, ownership, empowerment, collaboration or commitment, here are some critical high-level strategies for process improvement.
Without inspired and versatile leaders, process improvement in the creative arena simply won’t work. Creative leaders wear a number of hats, including mentor, marketer and cheerleader. (Quite a skill set, I know.) Second, such leaders are actively involved until the end. “Delegate and disappear” is never an option. As leaders, they understand they are in service to their teams.
On their own, creatives probably won’t organize themselves in order to solve business problems. In busy environments, they tend to focus on the work itself. Tackling process can be stressful and confusing. Great leaders can reduce stress on their team in three ways. First, they make it clear that creatives won’t be penalized for taking time away from their work. Second, they build vision. Instead of talking about business outcomes, they talk about people outcomes, because “reducing this” or “increasing that” doesn’t resonate with many creatives. This means more time to create, more clarity and more time with family and friends. These are all outcomes of process improvement, just viewed through a different lens.
Third, great leaders engage and motivate. They set goals, remove roadblocks, keep the team on target and celebrate successes.
Successful teams own their process problems. True, they may not have created these problems, but they hold themselves responsible—and accountable—for fixing them. This is essential, because realistically, no one else will do it for the team, and the problems certainly won’t fix themselves.
Such accountability creates a no-excuses culture. While the constraints that in-house creatives face are understood and acknowledged, they aren’t allowed to become limitations. Instead of falling back on excuses such as “we don’t have time for process improvement” or “creatives aren’t interested in process,” successful teams must adjust their thinking: “Let’s figure out how to find time” and “let’s figure out how to get creatives interested.”
Ultimately, ownership fosters an increased ability to identify problems, and the confidence to address them early on. Instead of being victimized by process, creatives effectively control it.
The leader is responsible for bringing the team and outside partners together and providing direction. But it’s the in-house creative team that really solves the problems.
Using this approach, the leader works as a facilitator. He or she introduces various efforts—capturing points of pain, gathering information, determining the root causes, developing solutions—but trusts the creatives to shape the solutions. Rather than telling the team what to fix and how to fix it, the leader empowers them to make decisions that best meet their business needs. Ultimately, it’s the team members that are closest to the issues and experience them most acutely.
A key advantage to the empowerment approach is much greater buy-in and commitment. A solution dictated by someone else may leave the team feeling that their concerns haven’t been addressed. A team-designed solution is one that’s truly adopted and owned. The leader simply makes sure that everyone stays engaged, stays on target and has the tools they need to be successful.
Getting the best results means examining the whole process, from the initial discussions with the client through to the completion of the project. It also means inviting other stakeholders to help.
Account managers, project managers and clients are all critical to the success (or failure) of in-house creative teams. Scheduling, deadlines, workflow, communications, rework, approvals—partners control a lot. And they’re not always aware that creatives may be struggling. That’s why including them in discussions is so important.
A process partnership helps creatives in many ways. It educates stakeholders. It improves communication. It strengthens relationships. It creates better solutions. It provides creatives with helpful feedback.
Handled properly, it can even influence how other groups work for the benefit of the creative team. The key is to frame the discussion in terms of process, not people. Asking the question, “Can we do anything to reduce review times?” is much more effective than stating, “You’re taking too long to review our work.”
Completion of the team’s first process project is a major milestone, and it should be celebrated, but the effort to make improvements shouldn’t stop there. Done correctly, process improvement is an ongoing effort—the outcomes of the first project are really just a baseline for future change. Communication can be continually improved. Rush jobs and rework can be further decreased. Feedback sessions with stakeholders can (and should) continue. New metrics can be captured.
By making process improvement a part of the culture, in-house creative teams have the power to identify new problems as they occur, work together to fix them early on and even eliminate them before they happen.
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Words are words, sentences are sentences, so what makes writing for the web different from print? Caplan launches his first web column by musing on this latest behavior modification.
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Benjamin Dauer is a Senior Product Designer at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. and was recently the Lead Product Designer at SoundCloud in Berlin, Germany. AIGA Baltimore took a field trip to interview Benjamin about designing in-house for NPR.
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